Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 9:20 am
From the endless memes to the Tiger King, dark humor will go down as one of the most effective coping mechanisms for isolated and anxious Americans amid a deadly outbreak that has killed and sickened tens of thousands across the country
Unlike some locales that have deployed police drones or actually arrested people for not maintaining a proper distance, our government officials here in Alaska have benevolently allowed us to still go outside.
Thanks to that indulgence I enjoyed one of the biggest laughs I’ve had over the past month.
While walking Dakota along the Chester Creek trail — and after passing numerous fresh camps and endless trash piles — I reached a small collection of playground equipment pathetically draped in yellow tape.
Most concerning as I gazed in sorrow over this plague-ravaged wasteland was realizing the small rocking duck had not been festooned with the impenetrable yellow ribbon of a mayor’s mandate.
With no one but Dakota within earshot, I couldn’t help myself.
I burst out laughing.
It is difficult to imagine more gut-busting evidence that we can trust without fail in government despite its ceaseless complaints of being resourced-starved.
While fanned out across the Anchorage parks and trail systems to weave tape through monkey bars and assiduously avoid picking up garbage or posting abatement notices, the Parks and Recreation Department under Mayor Ethan Berkowitz may have stumbled upon a solution to the problem of illegal camping:
If wrapping yellow tape around a swing set can close a playground, then surely a few more rolls strategically strung around some trees will convince the burgeoning greenbelt population to move along, seek help and stop stealing from the neighbors.
Or there is the possibility that Operation Monkey Barred is a colossal waste of time and money.
When evaluated based on risk of spreading the coronavirus, focusing on teeter totters buried in snow versus increasing neglect of the homeless population is akin to solving the draft from a broken window by closing the curtains.
The cruelty of Anchorage’s compassion after years upon years of tolerating open lawlessness is colliding with an easily transmitted virus that’s putting vulnerable people and those who generously care for them at risk.
Anchorage’s elected leaders have allowed this problem to get so out of hand that the working group tasked with helping the homeless is seriously requesting the deployment of the National Guard troops to clean up human waste.
Downtown Assemblyman Chris Constant supports the request. Thank goodness Anchorage voters just gave this district another seat on the Assembly. We’ll be on the right track in no time.
The single most dangerous situation that could contribute to community spread in Anchorage — particularly among the first responders and health care workers we need most right now — has not been reduced over the past month of the mayor strangling the economy and practicing pandemic theater at the playgrounds.
It has gotten demonstrably worse.
Closing Sportsmen’s Warehouse with the stroke of the pen is easy. Closing down sprawling camps taking over streets is more of a challenge. Only one is an act of leadership.
Far secondarily, but shared in common is the mayor’s refusal to follow the lead of governors in Massachusetts and New Hampshire or the original plastic purgers in San Francisco to prohibit reusable bags in stores.
The jurisdictions our mayor and Assembly chose to emulate recognize that reusable bags can spread disease, but apparently our problem is bad enough to keep us out of the park but not bad enough to keep germ caddies out of our stores.
Banning reusable bags would be an admission the plastic bag ban was and is ill-conceived, which is likely why the mayor hasn’t done it. Saving theoretical sea turtles is more important than stopping the spread.
Now, #stayhome, you.
Some misplaced priorities have certainly been clarified amid the coronavirus response, and the state Legislature has been no different.
A couple days after it was reported here that House Finance Co-Chair Jennifer Johnston declared she didn’t believe Alaska Natives could be trusted with an extra $1,000 and was therefore against paying out the Permanent Fund dividend early, Senate President Cathy Giessel and Senate Finance Co-Chair Natasha von Imhof sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
The letter to Mnuchin, who doesn’t have anything better to do, what with trying to persuade Senate Democrats to expand the Paycheck Protection Program by another $250 billion and literally overseeing trillions of dollars in coronavirus aid, was copied to the congressional delegation but not Gov. Mike Dunleavy and asked what he was “not” allowed to use the state’s share of relief funds for (emphasis in original).
In the tone of a student who reminds the teacher she has yet to assign homework, the letter implies Dunleavy has cited plans for improper use of the funds according to their interpretation of the CARES Act.
At the end of a week with most Alaskans stuck at home and nearly 40,000 on the unemployment rolls, two of the top three leaders in the Senate decided their most pressing priority was to undermine the governor and bother the U.S. Treasury Secretary while not bothering to help any Alaskans.
They were unbothered by the revelation of what has long been alleged but unproven until confirmed by Johnston: members of the shot-caller cohort in the Legislature don’t trust Alaskans with the PFD.
Rather than rectify that wrong by reconsidering their decision to withhold the dividend payment until the fall, Giessel and von Imhof chose to suggest Dunleavy is doing the same thing with his vetoes that they actually did with the PFD.
Not only did they not pay the PFD according to the formula in state law, the amount and the timing were explicitly based on federal dollars from stimulus checks and unemployment benefits as a substitute.
Projection ain’t just a job for laid off movie theater employees.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to put some yellow tape around the fridge.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 9:20 am
I don’t know how Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, ever goes back to a life of relative obscurity when this strange time comes to end.
She’s quickly become a bona fide local celebrity, a calming, trusted presence at the governor’s nightly press conferences to update us on the state’s efforts to combat COVID-19.
And she is good at explaining the facts —beyond good, she is nearly perfect, yet to miss a beat. Dubbed the “explainer in chief,” Dr. Zink is doing so many things right when it comes to crisis communications she deserves her own highlight.
Here are five of the many ways Dr. Zink is crushing it as a crisis communicator:
1.) She knows her stuff. Clearly, Dr. Zink is a subject matter expert. She is confident in her answers, because she knows the how and why of everything she is asked to explain. Sometimes, she is asked questions that don’t exactly relate to her area of expertise, but she doesn’t freeze up or fumble her way through a rambling non-answer. She does what us public relations professionals are constantly telling clients in media training sessions – she finds the right source to answer the question. If that person isn’t readily available, Dr. Zink makes a note to find out and get back to the questioner. We’ve checked. She does follow up. This is a basic media relations skill, and she excels at it.
2.) Zink is empathetic and human. She makes sure we know she and her family are going through this with the rest of us. That may sound overly simplistic, but a drill sergeant could deliver the same news as Dr. Zink and instill a sense of fear rather than a sense of “we will get through this together.” Zink expresses care and concern for the health of all Alaskans, and sounds like she means it.
She encourages Alaskans to take care of each other, and to check in on neighbors who may need a helping hand. Honestly, Dr. Zink would probably deliver a hot casserole to a vulnerable neighbor’s doorstep if someone asked her to. In a word, she comes across as sincere, another essential trait for effective crisis communicators.
3.) She is calm and composed under pressure. Does anything rattle this woman? Dr. Zink is in charge of communicating some pretty heavy stuff. Think about it: Every day, she and the governor go live in front of thousands of Alaskans, and tell us how many people have contracted the COVID-19 virus, or even died from it. She walks into a press conference knowing she must tell parents their kids can’t go to school, families can’t visit nursing homes, and traveling is basically off limits.
The prospect of communicating scary news would cause many of us to stammer, lose our breath, ramble, or freeze up. While I doubt she enjoys it, it is clear Dr. Zink understands she must maintain professionalism and decorum no matter how overwhelming the news gets. She is tough as nails, but still comes across as friendly and approachable – both rare traits in times of crisis.
4.) She speaks plainly and avoids jargon. We don’t need to hear medical terms we can’t comprehend. We need to know how to protect our families. Lord knows the health care field is full of acronyms and terms most of us do not understand.
Dr. Zink knows this, and goes out of her way to explain complex medical concepts in terms we can understand. Just like the governor did when he talked about tsunamis and how waves roll onto a shore, Dr. Zink uses analogies that make sense.
My favorite was early on in the crisis, when just a few cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Alaska. You could tell Dr. Zink wanted to discourage the media (and all of us watching online) from thinking that maybe we would escape the worst of this virus. So, she used the analogy of seeing a storm brewing on the horizon, with these first few COVID confirmations symbolizing the first drops of rain hitting the ground before it starts pouring.
Oh, and who can forget the whiteboard? Pulling out a whiteboard and drawing pictures that helped Alaskans visualize what the disease curve would look like under different circumstances made Dr. Zink appear more like a teacher than a doctor. In this case, she was both.
5.) She expresses her gratitude and recognizes her team without downplaying the serious nature of the crisis at hand. It has not gone unnoticed that Dr. Zink thanks journalists after every question, of which there are many, to say the least. Some cynics have labeled it overkill, but you can tell, or perceive, that she recognizes the role media play in helping keep Alaskans informed, healthy, and safe.
Dr. Zink also spreads the love and makes sure we all know she has a large team behind her and touts the excellent work being done by employees in public and private health, private industry, nonprofits and other entities contributing to tackling this crisis. In other words, she realizes she is not just a subject matter expert, but also a spokesperson, and wants to make sure citizens know about the many faceless heroes going the extra mile to keep us safe.
Often, a crisis can worsen when communications are poor. In this case, the situation has undoubtedly improved because of the excellent crisis communications skills displayed by Dr. Zink. We Alaskans owe her a collective, socially distant hug.
Sarah Erkman Ward is the president of Blueprint Alaska, an advocacy and strategic communications firm located in Anchorage.
Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 9:20 am
Many of you have heard me describe University of Alaska Anchorage as Alaska’s modern, relevant, connected urban-metropolitan university. UAA has become the school of choice for Alaska’s best and brightest, and we open our doors to anyone seeking opportunity through education.
UAA is Anchorage’s hometown university. We’re here to solve real-world problems. These words cannot fully describe the important asset UAA has become over its history.
At no time has the value of UAA to this community been more apparent than during our current response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the last 15 years, UAA biology researchers have been studying coronavirus strains, most recently in bats in Alaska, developing tools that can now be applied to the virus that causes COVID-19. Mutated coronavirus strains jumping from bats to humans are known to be the cause of the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the MERS outbreak in 2012.
Our researchers have partnered with the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance to standardize, catalog and make data accessible to everyone around the world, with the hope of painting a clearer picture of regional coronavirus variants.
In addition to this research, the UAA College of Health is working to graduate up to 72 nursing students early so that they can join the health care workforce in Alaska. The college is coordinating with relevant university offices, the Alaska Board of Nursing and the accrediting agency.
These students are completing their course requirements on an expedited timeline and will apply for temporary licensure that qualifies them to practice for six months. They will follow up with completion of the licensing exam that all nursing students take to become a permanent RN.
The college’s Alaska Center for Rural Health and Health Workforce is working with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 Task Force to quickly develop a medical supply survey tool to track supply usage and restock rates used by the state to prioritize and distribute critical medical supplies.
Additionally, a research team from the UAA College of Health’s Division of Population Health Sciences and Institute for Circumpolar Studies used epidemiological modeling to predict the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Anchorage and Mat-Su area. The report found without recent state and municipal intervention policies aimed at sheltering in place and social distancing, Alaska’s medical infrastructure would become overwhelmed.
The report, which was shared with Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink, called for strengthening these intervention measures to “flatten the curve.” The researchers have now done similar modeling for the Fairbanks area.
UAA’s contributions also extend beyond the College of Health. An economist within the UAA Institute for Economic and Social Research and the College of Business and Public Policy has conducted analysis on the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Alaska’s economy. A faculty member with expertise in international policy and disaster response is actively contributing to local planning efforts.
UAA engineering faculty have responded to requests by medical professionals to produce ventilator parts and personal protective equipment using 3D printing technology available on campus. Another faculty member is adapting orthopedic surgical suits for use in screening COVID-19 patients.
The federally funded Small Business Development Center within the Business Enterprise Institute at UAA has consulted with over 200 small businesses in the state on strategies to mitigate financial losses due to business closures.
In addition, the institute’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership worked with the Alaska Legislature on an amendment to Senate Bill 241. The bill extends the governor’s declaration of a public health disaster emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and allows for temporary changes to state law. The amendment provides a liability waiver, making it possible for local manufacturers to produce badly needed PPE and allowing local health care providers to use it.
The UAA colleges of Health, Arts and Sciences and Engineering transferred supplies of personal protective equipment to the state for distribution to health care workers. UAA research labs have transferred needed chemical supplies to Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium for use in COVID-19 testing.
UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center has been converted into a medical alternate care site to treat patients in the event local hospitals experience an influx of COVID-19 patients. UAA is making space available in two of its residence halls to house health care workers if the need arises. The university’s dining services is also standing by to provide support to health care workers. Similar responses have occurred at UAA’s community campuses.
We’ve produced a video series called “Ask a UAA Expert,” featuring just-in-time relevant information from faculty with expertise relevant to our COVID-19 response—everything from disaster recovery to talking with your kids about the pandemic to dangers the pandemic poses to rural Alaska Native communities.
This work and more commenced immediately as part of Alaska’s COVID-19 response without anyone having to ask. That’s what being a relevant, connected university means. UAA is not the ivory tower.
I have always said UAA excels at applied research that solves Alaska’s most pressing problems. It is no surprise to me that UAA has stepped up magnificently in this current crisis. This is your hometown university. UAA is right here wherever, whenever you might need us.
Cathy Sandeen is the chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 9:20 am
Let’s be real. Staying-in-place and hunkering-down is not as easy as many of us thought it would be, but a few things do make it bearable.
Quarantined with kids? Tech workers are making sure schoolwork, videos and books can be downloaded and that electricity, gas and water is flowing so meals can be prepared.
Working from home? Communication workers are still on the job making sure your internet stays on so you can connect to your team.
Staffing a store, clinic, piece of the supply chain or other critical infrastructure? Electricity is keeping the vital equipment we need in hospitals, businesses, and infrastructure powered.
No matter what we are doing, this pandemic has proven how heavily we rely on technology and utilities for work, education, communication and entertainment and how essential and critical it is to have highly trained professionals working to keep us safe and comfortable.
The women and men who make up the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represent some of the workers keeping things running right now so medical facilities can remain open and utilities running smoothly.
Essential and mission critical workers include hospital technicians, warehouse workers, power linemen, electricians, power plant workers and technicians as well as communications workers like telephone linemen, installation and repair workers, telephone operators, central office technicians, cable maintenance workers, and fiber optic specialists, mechanics, line clearance tree trimmers and heavy equipment operators.
The skilled workers and the companies who employ them to make all these things work deserve our thanks and our support over the long haul. This is especially true because they stand ready to deploy in whatever weather to do whatever it takes to safely make things work so our lives are not disrupted for long durations.
More than the inconvenience it might cause most of us when there are downed lines or slow internet, reliable energy and fast repairs are a matter of life and death as hospitals work to treat people for viral infections on top of serving patients sick from other ailments.
Utility and construction companies all along Alaska’s Railbelt and statewide made plans to quickly step up the safety protocols in order to preserve the people power it takes to maintain or fix things in an emergency. Many of these jobs require a crew, and if people get sick from COVID-19, or any other virus, replacements need to be properly trained and nearby to get the job done quickly.
Luckily, due to a robust apprenticeship program and workers that live in Alaska, we can make this happen. Not only that, we employ Alaskans who are here and know our communities, the terrain and the climate, and who understand our weather and do not need to be quarantined for 14 days due to traveling from outside of Alaska during this pandemic.
This emergency has highlighted the value of usually commonplace things such as cleaning products, facemasks, video communication and ventilators. It also highlights the value of all kinds of jobs and the people who do them. We look forward to a day soon when the importance of a trained, Alaska-based workforce is fully appreciated and when going back to our regular job sites will be the new normal.
Stay safe out there everyone.
Dave Reaves is the Business Manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547, which represents more than 4,000 electrical, communications, construction, government and health care workers across the state of Alaska.
Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 9:20 am
As leaders of the state development bank work to advance a controversial road to access remote mining prospects in Interior Alaska, one of the primary landowners along the route contends they have not been adequately consulted and need much more information before they can approve of the project.
Doyon Ltd. CEO Aaron Schutt wrote in an open letter to Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority Executive Director Tom Boutin dated April 7 that while the authority has been deeply involved with the Bureau of Land Management on the environmental review for the road, “AIDEA has for years failed to engage with Doyon in any meaningful communication” regarding the project.
Doyon is the Alaska Native regional corporation for most of Interior Alaska. Holding title to just more than 11.5 million acres, Doyon is also the largest private landowner in the state.
Doyon owns land that the road would cross at its east end, near the village of Evansville and the Dalton Highway.
As proposed, the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, commonly known as the Ambler road, would run west from the Dalton Highway for approximately 211 miles along the southern flank of the Brooks Range to the Ambler mining district.
The area in the upper Kobuk River drainage has long been prized by mining companies for its high-grade prospects of copper, gold and other metals.
Several companies are in varying stages of exploring numerous claims in the roughly 75-mile long district, but road access has consistently been cited as a required precursor to developing mines in the isolated area.
Under the authority’s plan — modeled after the access road and port built to the Red Dog zinc mine in Northwest Alaska — AIDEA would own the road and recoup development costs through tolls paid by the mining companies that use it.
State officials backing the plan have long stressed the road would be closed to the public and access would be closely monitored, though many skeptics of the plan question the feasibility and legality of restricting access, as roughly $26 million of state general fund money has already been approved for the project.
However, many residents of the area have long opposed the road and the mines. They contend the construction of the road could disrupt the Western Arctic caribou herd that migrates through the corridor and is a primary subsistence food source for the villages clustered at each end of the route. Some are also concerned about the practicality of keeping the road closed to the public, fearing that a new route into the remote area could bring more hunters.
The proposed mines have also drawn scrutiny for potential impacts to salmon and whitefish runs in the Kobuk River drainage.
AIDEA originally estimated construction of a basic gravel road would likely cost somewhere in the $300 million range, but projections in the Ambler road final environmental impact statement, or EIS, issued by BLM March 27 put the cost at more than $500 million.
BLM Alaska officials have supported AIDEA’s plan. The agency led the EIS work because it is in charge of reviewing the authority’s application for a road right-of-way across portions of federal lands in the area.
Also on March 27, the AIDEA board of directors approved a transfer of $35 million from the authority’s Revolving Fund to its Arctic Infrastructure Development Fund to eventually support development of the Ambler road. Board members said the money would likely fund engineering, right-of-way acquisitions, public outreach and other pre-construction activities this summer.
Schutt emphasized in the letter that AIDEA does not have an access agreement with Doyon either for the road right-of-way or for additional field work.
Though many opposed are Doyon shareholders, the company does not have a formal stance on the project; the company has filed comments through the EIS process outlining the concerns with the project it wants the authority to address, according to Schutt.
“AIDEA has never even presented a written proposal to Doyon for such access, much less a written proposal or detailed information regarding the (right-of-way). As such, AIDEA and its contractors do not have permission to enter or cross Doyon lands to conduct any field work in the summer of 2020, or at any time,” he wrote, while also noting that AIDEA does not have eminent domain authority granted to some state agencies.
AIDEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik wrote in an email that the board approved the transfer of the $35 million “in support of Gov. Dunleavy’s Open for Business initiative.”
“AIDEA is committed to working with all stakeholders to move this project forward in a responsible manner, to utilize the state’s extensive mineral resource potential to provide much-needed long-term economic growth and development, and to create job opportunities,” Rodvik wrote further.
According to Schutt, Doyon is open to discussing the project and he specifically requested AIDEA officials provide Doyon with technical information for the portion of the road that would cross the company’s lands; information regarding a financial proposal for a right-of-way across Doyon lands; a detailed financing plan for the overall project; and how AIDEA plans to address concerns raised by the Evansville Tribe and Evansville Inc., a Native village corporation.
In 2014, the Evansville Inc. board of directors passed a resolution prohibiting the road from crossing the company’s land around the village and the Evansville Tribal Council also passed a resolution in 2017 opposing the road.
Doyon spokeswoman Sarah Obed also said representatives for the Native corporation have met with AIDEA officials several times over the years to discuss the Ambler road and generally asked each time about the items outlined in the letter.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 9:20 am
An international partnership aiming to boost Alaska’s broadband connectivity is over as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
London-based OneWeb, an emerging global satellite broadband company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 27, effectively ending a deal the company had just made with Anchorage-based telecom Microcom.
Microcom founder Chuck Schumann announced in mid-January an agreement to be a distributor of space on OneWeb’s then-growing global broadband satellite network for Alaska and Hawaii through Microcom’s broadband subsidiary Pacific Dataport Inc.
A statement on OneWeb’s website says the company had been in advanced negotiations for investment that would have funded it through its commercial launch.
“While the company was close to obtaining financing, the process did not progress because of the financial impact and market turbulence related to the spread of COVID-19,” the statement says.
OneWeb previously touted large international partners and investors such as fellow telecoms Hughes and Qualcomm as well as Coca Cola and Dutch aerospace giant Airbus.
The partnership with Pacific Dataport was targeting large customers with Pacific Dataport selling wholesale broadband capacity on OneWeb’s network, which was based on a massive fleet of low-earth orbit, or LEO, satellites.
OneWeb representatives said the broadband network was scheduled to be up in Alaska by the end of the year.
Schumann said in an interview that he was very disappointed to hear about OneWeb’s bankruptcy, but noted the partnership was intended to add supplemental capacity to Pacific Dataport’s own Aurora broadband project.
“They had funding, everything was going forward and they were in a good place. We had some meetings in (Washington) D.C., that first week of March and everything was in place,” Schumann said of OneWeb. “And then, from the COVID crisis, the oil prices and the stock market tanked, which caused their financers, their backers to back out, so they stepped out and left OneWeb hanging.”
The regulatory issues inherent in a global network of LEO satellites are a constant challenge, according to Schumann.
He said OneWeb needed to deploy about 200 satellites to make the project work with Pacific Dataport.
The company had launched 74 satellites out of a total program of approximately 700, OneWeb said in a statement. About half of its ground 44 stations were complete or under construction as well.
Northern latitudes were going to get the first coverage as OneWeb continued to launch its satellite fleet from north to south through much of next year, company representatives said in January.
Schumann said it’s unclear at this point what impact the ongoing economic shutdown will have for Pacific Dataport’s Aurora broadband project, but he expects it to be delayed at least several months.
Announced in January 2019, the Aurora project will utilize two geosynchronous equatorial orbit, or GEO, satellites specifically positioned to provide broadband coverage to Alaska.
Pacific Dataport’s satellite manufacturer, San Francisco-based satellite developer Astranis Space Technologies Corp. is in the process of drafting a report briefing its customers as to what the current economic and supply chain situation means for its business and development schedule, according to Schumann.
“The difficulty over the last couple of weeks has been trying to predict what was going to happen next week,” he said. “Things change — I mean, every four hours it seems it’s different.”
The first Aurora satellite was scheduled to launch late this year with 10 gigabits of broadband capacity. A second satellite increasing the network capacity to 80 gigabits was set for 2022.
Schumann is also trying to determine how satellite launch schedules have changed in recent weeks.
“It’s got to impact us a little bit — within a matter of months, anyway,” he said.
For a host of reasons, Alaska is consistently listed among the states with the lowest levels of broadband coverage in the country.
Currently, Alaska has about 2.5 gigabits per second of satellite bandwidth across multiple broadband providers, according to Pacific Dataport.
He said Alaska’s lack of broadband capacity has just been exacerbated by many people being forced to work from home and hold videoconference meetings while health care providers are trying to deliver telemedicine during a health crisis.
“Rural Alaska is really hurting for additional capacity, additional connectivity, and there’s just nothing there,” Schumann said.
The current work restrictions and health guidelines have added another layer of complexity to Microcom’s ongoing service as well.
Microcom has approximately 30 technicians that work in the field while administrative employees are working from home, according to Schumann. As has been the case for many companies similar situations, it was difficult obtaining basic personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for employees in the first couple weeks that COVID-19 spread across the country, Schumann said, noting that the availability of those products has improved of late.
“We’re starting to get a handle on it. Nobody was ready for the crush of requirements — the crush of demand for those products,” he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 8:17 am
State fisheries managers insist it is too early to close commercial salmon fisheries to prevent the spread of COVID-19 despite growing concerns from many in small communities about the coming influx of seasonal workers.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in an interview that he is certainly aware of the issues that could arise from holding spring and summer salmon fisheries that start next month as everyone also attempts to limit the spread of the disease, but he stressed state officials are drafting plans to provide extra protection to local residents and fisheries workers.
He also noted that salmon is just one sector of the state’s diverse and year-round fishing industry.
“I think people are wondering whether we’re going to have fisheries; I think they forget that we actually have a lot of fisheries in the water right now and we’re geared up to manage those,” Vincent-Lang said.
In addition to numerous federally managed fisheries, commercial boats are currently targeting crab, halibut, rockfish, pollock, Pacific cod and other species in state waters.
Commercial and charter fishing have been deemed essential industries by state officials through the COVID-19 travel and work restrictions, meaning they can continue as long as participants submit operating plans to the state Commerce Department that adhere to current health mandates.
Those ongoing fisheries “have been operating fairly smoothly,” he said, and ADFG managers are learning a lot about the daily operations of a fishery in the era of social distancing and travel restrictions that can be applied to the upcoming salmon seasons.
“We’re learning how to be adaptive,” Vincent-Lang said.
For example, managers are using new ways to sign fish tickets that verify catches and take biological samples used for management from harvested fish, according to Vincent-Lang.
Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby and Curyung Tribe First Chief Thomas Tilden urged Gov. Mike Dunleavy to consider closing the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery in a letter dated April 6 citing concerns about the region’s limited capacity to provide health care and a possible need to make the decision early to allow impacted fishermen and processors to apply for federal aid.
In Cordova, home to the state’s first large-scale salmon fishery each year in mid-May at the mouth of the nearby Copper River, residents have started a KEEP CORDOVA SAFE website, containing numerous open letters to local and state officials demanding further travel restrictions for fisheries workers and suggesting only local fishermen be allowed to fish, among other measures.
The leaders of 11 Bristol Bay processing companies followed up with an April 7 letter to regional leaders outlining their strategies for safe operations this summer in what has been a $300 million fishery in recent years.
Vincent-Lang said the department is ready for the Copper River chinook and sockeye season and the first opener will be around May 14 with normal adjustments for weather and water conditions.
“We’re expecting a fairly high participation rate in that fishery,” he said.
Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin said in a prior interview with the Journal that processor companies have submitted detailed plans to the city for managing their crews this summer and some include bringing additional medical personnel to Cordova.
As for Bristol Bay, where fishing starts in June and typically peaks in early July, Vincent-Lang said he has seen several plans from processors there as well.
Processors are protecting public health by also making quarantines mandatory for their workers upon arrival on top of state and local government mandates as well as keeping them “on campus” throughout the season to limit interaction with local residents.
“What I’m doing is telling local community leaders to be is patient; this is working its way through,” Vincent-Lang said. “We’re learning things as we conduct fisheries right now and it’s premature to make a decision to close those fisheries at this point. As we gear up we’ll be sharing our plans with you to understand what we’re doing to protect public health in those areas.”
Bristol Bay Borough Mayor Dan O’Hara said he and other officials from area fishing groups and local governments have participated in teleconferences with Seattle-area processors and state officials in recent days to more closely coordinate operations this summer.
O’Hara said the Bristol Bay Borough, which covers the communities of Naknek and King Salmon and receives more than $4.5 million in fish landing taxes each year, is not interested in closing down the salmon fishery this year. He also said it is too soon to take such a big step.
Instead, “there’s nobody coming off the water to the mainland” at Naknek’s docks, O’Hara said as long as current state work, travel and distancing mandates persist.
He said the borough assembly passed a resolution in April restricting travel into its communities beyond the governor’s health mandates but borough leaders were later informed by the governor’s office they did not have the authority to do so.
Exactly what authorities local governments have to restrict travel and other specific activities during the ongoing public health emergency is also being worked out statewide.
“We don’t need to be stepping around him,” O’Hara said of Dunleavy’s orders.
As of April 14, Bristol Bay Borough administrators had received seven plans from processors, according to O’Hara.
“They plan on either chartering in (workers) and being tested before they get here and just getting on the bus and going straight down to the processing plant, shutting the campus completely down and they’ll not come out of there until the fishing season’s over, and I think that’s a good plan,” he said.
“As mayor I’d prefer that nobody comes here prior to May 15 but we already have 400-500 people here and they’re of course following the quarantine.”
The Bristol Bay Borough will maintain the restrictions it can at least until public health officials have a better handle on the virus, according to O’Hara. If the situation improves, mandates could be lifted.
Managers also must consider what not having a fishery could mean for future runs. Nearly 50 million sockeye are expected to return to Bristol Bay rivers this summer and not catching the vast majority of them would make for salmon escapements that would far exceed the goals for each river.
Commercial fishermen usually harvest approximately 75 percent of the sockeye that return to Bristol Bay rivers.
At a high level, managers typically try to allow sufficient numbers of fish to escape and spawn to generate the highest return based on historic data and scientific modeling. Allowing additional salmon to escape harvest and spawn can increase competition for food among juvenile salmon rearing in freshwater and reduce the productivity of future runs.
“We don’t want to damage the long-term health of those ecosystems in terms of fish reproduction, but second of all it provides a significant economic boost to that local community in terms of income to fishermen and income to the local community,” Vincent-Lang said, while also stressing that accounting for those considerations will not come at the expense of public health.
“We’re not going to just harvest fish and put the local health at risk.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Monday, April 13, 2020 - 6:26 pm
Two Alaska Senate Republican leaders have asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin what states can’t spend COVID-19 relief funds on after Gov. Mike Dunleavy said several of the items he vetoed from the state budget will be covered with the federal aid.
Senate President Cathy Giessel and Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Natasha von Imhof sent a letter to Mnuchin April 9 seeking clarifications as to what Dunleavy is not allowed to spend the more than $1.25 billion the State of Alaska is set to receive in COVID-19 relief funding from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act passed by Congress in late March.
On April 7 Dunleavy announced more than $210 million worth of line-item vetoes to general fund spending across a suite of programs in the fiscal year 2021 state operating budget as collapsed oil prices again worsen the state’s structural annual deficit. He said in a press briefing, however, that federal CARES Act funds would be used to backfill the vast majority of the vetoed state money, including funds for programs Dunleavy has previously battled over with legislative leaders.
Officials in the governor’s office said the letter misrepresents what the administration is attempting to do with the CARES money, contending money that would flow directly to large cities elsewhere in the country will have to be distributed to local governments by the State of Alaska because no communities in the state are large enough to meet certain provisions in the massive federal aid package for cities of more than 500,000 people.
Dunleavy’s spokesman Jeff Turner wrote in an emailed statement that the letter “contains some inaccuracies about the CARES Act.”
“There are several sections within the CARES Act that contain federal funds for specific state programs like K-12 public/university education, transportation and local governments. Those sections are outside of the $1.25 billion the state will receive later this year.
“Gov. Dunleavy, like other governors around the country, are waiting for additional guidance from the Treasury Department on how the administration can distribute federal CARES Act funds,” Turner wrote.
Giessel and von Imhof wrote in a joint emailed statement: “While we share the governor’s hope that these programs can be made whole with federal funds, we also understood it to be our responsibility as the appropriating body to do our due diligence and receive formal clarification.”
The letter to Mnuchin was copied to the members of the federal delegation but not the governor’s office.
According to documents prepared by the Office of Management and Budget, the administration plans to use CARES money to cover nearly $208 million worth of vetoed items, most of which pertain to community assistance funding, K-12 education and the share of school bond debt reimbursed by the state each year.
Dunleavy said the $100.1 million in school bond debt payments he vetoed would be covered under the CARES Act because local governments across Alaska are going to lose tax revenue due to the statewide economic shutdown enacted to slow the spread of the virus.
The governor also vetoed a $30 million K-12 education appropriation made by the Legislature outside of the state’s typical education funding formula and another $30 million in community assistance grants approved in the supplemental budget for the current 2020 fiscal year that ends June 30.
Linking the vetoes to the CARES Act drew a sharp response from House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, who called the approach “incredibly troubling” and claimed the governor is using the pandemic to justify vetoing budget items he never supported in a formal statement.
The senators’ letter to Mnuchin describes eligible expenditures for CARES Act funds as those directly related to the COVID-19 emergency; those not accounted for in the most recently approved budget and expenses incurred from the beginning of March through the end of December.
“Legitimate COVID-19 related funding concerns, subject to the provisions of the CARES Act, are expected. For example: Items that are directly COVID-19 related that were not considered in FY20 (either through the operating budget or its supplementals) are anticipated. But can the Governor claim to veto items in the FY21 budget, even if the funding is not directly related to COVID-19 health crisis (like school bond debt reimbursement or covering operational costs for the Alaska Marine Highway System)?” the letter asks.
Giessel and von Imhof also noted a $12.5 million veto to the University of Alaska budget in the letter to Mnuchin. Dunleavy said April 7 that veto was to return the spending to the amount agreed to last year with the board of regents in a three-year compact.
Last June, Dunleavy vetoed more than $440 million from the 2020 budget — which included reducing the school debt and community assistance payments — following a contentious and prolonged budget process. Those vetoes helped spur an ongoing effort to recall him from office.
According to Office of Management and Budget estimates, Alaska will receive $38.4 million in K-12 funding, $10.5 million in higher education funds and $6.6 million in governor’s emergency education relief funds.
Further, it’s the administration’s position is that the school bond debt payments are discretionary and transferring money to local governments is a state expenditure that should be covered, in part because the fall in oil prices over recent weeks has reduced the state’s 2021 forecasted revenue by more than $800 million, or about 17 percent of the overall budget.
According to the governor’s office, Dunleavy likely would have made the same vetoes had the state’s fiscal picture similarly deteriorated without the pandemic.
Oil prices started falling in late February from a fairly steady plateau in the mid-$60s per barrel as global oil demand fell off after China implemented widespread travel restrictions. Prices went into a tailspin — hitting close to $20 per barrel — starting in early March when Saudi Arabia and Russia started a price war that was just settled April 12 in a broad deal to cut global production by nearly 10 percent.
The state has traditionally paid the majority of the debt service incurred by local governments for school construction under a statutory program that the Legislature suspended in 2015. Lawmakers have continued to fund debt service for bonds sold when the program was active, but the final assistance is subject to the annual budget process. Last year, Dunleavy halved the state’s school bond debt reimbursement payment to $49 million and vetoed another attempt to restore the funding.
The administration also doesn’t intend to use CARES money to supplement state ferry operations, which have been minimized as travel has been curtailed, officials in the governor’s office said, adding that Dunleavy has spoken with Mnuchin twice about the federal aid.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Monday, April 13, 2020 - 3:26 pm
Amidst stay at home orders and a 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers coming to Alaska, Alaska’s charter fleet, of over a thousand vessels, are preparing for an uncertain fishing season.
Alaska’s sportfishing tourism business is a major economic driver for small Alaska coastal communities. In a recent economic study done by NOAA Fisheries, based on 2015 data, the Alaska’s charter sector contributed to over $180 million to Alaska’s economy and $330 million to the U.S. economy.
Alaska’s charter fleet has seen ups and downs over its history, some due to changes in fisheries regulations and some due to just ups and downs in the nation’s economy. More recently the charter sector has seen a growth in active vessels in the fishery, which is probably due to a good economy and increased tourism. This trend may be facing a sudden cliff this year if businesses can’t open on time because of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, pandemic.
The million-dollar question (literally) is when will Alaska be open for business? A 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers to Alaska is a non-starter for the charter sector and so is social-distancing, an almost impossible situation on small six-pack charter boats.
Even with these unknowns, lodges and single boat operators are gearing up for the season and preparing the best they can. A recent Alaska Charter Association poll showed more than 90 percent of respondents still hope to open this summer if possible.
Dennis Meier of Tanaku Lodge, Southeast Alaska, is planning on opening as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. Most lodges open in May and run until September. He is currently drafting a Covid-19 Operations Manual, which he plans to share with other lodges in the area.
It includes sanitation procedures for his lodge and sportfishing vessels, health checks of his employees, and social distancing guidelines if and when possible. He even purchased an anti-static disinfectant sprayer, the type used on commercial aircrafts to use at his facility.
Capt. Jimmy Akana of Seward is typical of Southcentral operators who need to be open to pay their bills: “Even a month’s worth of business will help me pay my bills. I don’t want to depend on the government handouts, who knows if and when they will come.”
Capt. Daniel Donnich, a single boat charter operator out of Homer, who normally fishes year-round, is currently unable to take charters due to the recent mandates that close all but essential businesses. Over recent years, as fishing regulations have become more restrictive for guided anglers, his clientele base has shifted from local residents to out of state anglers. He has put his clientele on hold until business and travel restrictions are lifted.
Theresa Weiser, owner of Wild Strawberry Lodge in Sitka, takes calls daily as cancellations roll in due to the coronavirus pandemic and hopes her clientele base of 28 years will decide to move their reservations to next year. Some do and some don’t. She has tried to roll over her May reservations to June in hopes things will get back to normal by then.
A Southeast Alaska lodge owner for 38 years, I am on the other side of the spectrum.
I decided to close for the season after riding the emotional roller coaster from day to day not knowing when it will be safe for our guests to travel or even if it was, how many of my guests would still have a fear of travel, as well as their willingness to spend money during this time of economic uncertainty.
Unfortunately, those that depend on cruise ship business, have all but written off their season. The federal government’s cruise ship “No Sail Orders” have recently been modified which will probably prevent cruise ships from coming to Alaska beyond the originally announced July 1 date.
The sooner the charter sector can plan on a fishing season, even if abbreviated, the better. Lodge operations need time to ramp up to do business. Hiring staff, getting boats and facilities ready and getting supplies out to remote locations are challenging in a normal season.
This year, there will be additional challenges. Commitments to seasonal staff as to when and if they will be hired has stressed relationships. Availability of supplies may be an issue; will there be enough food supplies, sanitation agents, face masks if required, toilet paper? With local air service providers going out of business, will remote lodges be able to get their clients out to their facilities?
The decision to lessen the damage to Alaska’s economy brought on by the coronavirus and to open businesses as soon as possible versus the potential of jeopardizing people’s health if done too early, will have to be made soon.
Prior to this, the governor should work closely with the charter sector to outline a management plan for reopening the charter fishery when appropriate. The COVID-19 peak and decline projections have healthcare back to normal around the end of May.
Will the governor open businesses shortly thereafter? What will be the metrics used to make such a decision? Does this mean no more deaths due to COVID-19 for a period of time or no one gets sick with COVID-19 during this time? The governor will probably be the first to weigh in by lifting travel restrictions and other mandates.
Each lodge and charter business will have to make their own health risk and operating cost assessments to determine whether it’s worth opening for the remainder of the season or better just to dry dock their boats.
Richard Yamada is the president of the Alaska Charter Association, a non-profit statewide charter organization. He is one of three U.S. Commissioners on the International Pacific Halibut Commission, is on NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee which advises the Secretary of Commerce on all marine matters, and is a board member of NACO, the National Association of Charterboat Operators.
Posted Monday, April 13, 2020 - 2:05 pm
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — OPEC, Russia and other oil-producing nations on April 12 finalized an unprecedented production cut of nearly 10 million barrels, or a tenth of global supply, in hopes of boosting crashing prices amid the coronavirus pandemic and a price war, officials said.
“This could be the largest reduction in production from OPEC for perhaps a decade, maybe longer,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who credited President Donald Trump’s personal involvement in getting dueling parties to the table and helping to end a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Oil prices have collapsed as the coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes have largely halted global travel and slowed down other energy-chugging sectors such as manufacturing. It has devastated the oil industry in the U.S., which now pumps more crude than any other country.
But some producers have been reluctant to ease supply. The cartel and other nations agreed to allow Mexico to cut only 100,000 barrels per month, a sticking point for an accord initially reached Friday after a marathon video conference between 23 nations. The nations together agreed to cut 9.7 million barrels per day throughout May and June.
The group reached the deal just hours before Asian markets reopened April 13 and as international benchmark Brent crude traded at just more than $31 per barrel and American shale producers struggle.
Video aired by the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al-Arabiya showed the moment that Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, a son of King Salman, assented to the deal.
“I go with the consent, so I agree,” the prince said, chuckling, drawing a round of applause from those on the video call.
But it had not been smiles and laughs for weeks after the so-called OPEC+ group of OPEC members and other nations failed in March to reach an agreement on production cuts, sending prices tumbling. Saudi Arabia sharply criticized Russia days earlier over what it described as comments critical of the kingdom, which finds itself trying to appease Trump, a longtime OPEC critic.
Even U.S. senators had warned Saudi Arabia to find a way to boost prices as American shale firms face far-higher production costs. American troops had been deployed to the kingdom for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks over concerns of Iranian retaliation amid regional tensions.
“They’ve spent over the last month waging war on American oil producers while we are defending theirs. This is not how friends treat friends,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, before the OPEC+ deal.
U.S. producers have already been reducing output. The American Petroleum Institute lauded the global pact, saying it will help get other nations’ state-owned oil production to follow the lead of U.S. producers that are trying to adjust to plunging demand.
Brouillette said the U.S. did not make commitments of its own production cuts, but was able to show the obvious — that plunging demand because of the pandemic is expected to slash U.S. oil production.
Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh also told state television that Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would cut another 2 million barrels of oil per day between them atop the OPEC+ deal. The three countries did not immediately acknowledge the cut themselves, though Zanganeh attended the video conference.
Officials said other planned cuts would stand in the deal, meaning an 8 million barrel per day cut from July through the end of the year and a 6 million barrel cut for 16 months beginning in 2021.
“This will enable the rebalancing of the oil markets and the expected rebound of prices by $15 per barrel in the short term,” said a statement from Nigeria’s oil ministry.
Mexico had initially blocked the deal but its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said April 10 that he had agreed with Trump that the U.S. will compensate what Mexico cannot add to the proposed cuts.
“The big Oil Deal with OPEC Plus is done. This will save hundreds of thousands of energy jobs in the United States,” Trump said in a tweet. “I would like to thank and congratulate President Putin of Russia and King Salman of Saudi Arabia.”
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin held a joint call with Trump and Saudi King Salman to express support of the deal. It also said Putin spoke separately with Trump about the oil market and other issues.
Analysts offered cautious praise.
“The pure size of the cut is unprecedented, but, then again, so is the impact the coronavirus is having on demand,” said Mohammed Ghulam, an energy analyst at Raymond James.
But Ghulam and others worried it may not be enough.
“This is at least a temporary relief for the energy industry and for the global economy. This industry is too big to be let to fail and the alliance showed responsibility with this agreement,” said Per Magnus Nysveen, the head of analysis at Rystad Energy. “Even though the production cuts are smaller than what the market needed and only postpone the stock building constraints problem, the worst is for now avoided.”
Knickmeyer reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, Cathy Bussewitz in New York and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.
Posted Friday, April 10, 2020 - 3:02 pm
Today we view "2 Young 2 Restless: COVID-19 Drift," the sequel to “The Young and the Restless.” In case you missed Episode One, you can catch up here, and view updates to key plot points below:
As described in our first installment, I am unable to consume any television shows with even a modicum more plot than a typical twenty-minute sitcom. The one exception to this rule is Tiger King. Tiger King has every possible plot mashed together into one show. So far, I count polygamy, cults, murder, animal rights, arson, blood feuds, a woman with a mysterious past, magic, illicit drug smuggling, and illicit animal smuggling. Granted there may be more; after all, I’m only on Episode Four.
I stopped watching The Office towards the end of Season Five. It is at this point that layoffs become an all too real plot point. I was watching The Office for the express purpose that nothing bad happens, and no character’s actions have any material consequences. Layoffs, however, are bad and are real consequences.
I started watching Parks and Recreation in place of The Office. I’ve never watched it before and am halfway through Season Two. The show is about local government. This guarantees there are no layoffs, and no consequences.
And now, we continue with "2 Young 2 Restless: COVID-19 Drift"
I’ve consumed more chips and salsa in the last three weeks than I have in the last five years combined. Sodium intake is reaching medically concerning levels.
For about two hours, I contemplated doing my first ever juice cleanse. Before this pandemic, a juice cleanse never sounded remotely appealing. These days, however, a juice cleanse would just be another new activity.
I began researching any steps and needed materials to embark on a juice cleanse. It turns out, juice cleanses are either very expensive, very labor intensive, or both. I went back to eating chips and salsa.
I find myself fantasizing about the other forms of self-improvement I will be able to do post-quarantine. Waxing my legs suddenly seems like an excellent use of time. Much like a juice cleanse, waxing my legs has never held any pull before now. It always appeared time consuming, costly, and painful. Also, much like a juice cleanse, now it’s an activity.
I’m grateful for my foresight in obtaining a quarantine haircut prior to the Municipality of Anchorage shutting down. Else, I would be mightily tempted to experiment with giving myself a haircut.
My brother got a puppy. Now I want a puppy. This is new as I am allergic to dogs.
I’ve added thirty minutes of daily internet puppy video viewing to my schedule.
When I am feeling otherwise bored, I take my temperature.
Clearly, in my nearly four weeks of isolation I’ve formed many bad habits. I have, however, also made a few notable improvements. For the first time in my life, I am cooking every day. My weekly menu consists of a rotating schedule of scrambled eggs, tuna salad, oatmeal, fruit and cheese, and frozen salmon. Much like my sodium intake, my mercury, cholesterol, and omega fatty acid levels are unsurpassed.
In addition to cooking, I’m now exercising. My usual fitness classes are broadcast via Zoom, and all have added daily sessions. I am now not only working out every day, I’m working out every day, twice a day.
My Pure Barre classes with other Millennial women via Zoom are significantly more orderly than my beginners’ karate classes with children. None of the children know how to mute the microphones on their parents’ computers, so the classes are conducted amid loud shrieks of delight, making it difficult to hear the instructor. Periodically, a noisy family squabble breaks out in the background. During the last session, one girl tripped over her dog. The instructor more or less gave up on teaching us new material and instead had us kick at the wall for a few minutes.
While we Alaskans share much anxiety about the future, we also share a stalwart commitment to an isolated misanthropic lifestyle. Stay safe fellow cabin people.
Sarah Brown is still a shut-in, but not a hoarder. If you must, she can be reached at [email protected]
, and on Twitter @mesarahjb. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.
Posted Friday, April 10, 2020 - 11:22 am
There is something rotten in Juneau.
In the days since it was reported here that House Finance Co-Chair Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage justified the decision to deny an early Permanent Fund dividend based on the belief the money would cause trouble in the villages, one question stands over all: Just how widespread is her attitude in the Legislature and in particular among the leadership?
The casual nature of Johnston’s claim about rural Alaskans is evidence of her comfort with expressing such a view as well an apparent lack of receiving negative feedback for saying it openly, at least until now.
Minority Leader and fellow Anchorage Republican Lance Pruitt called in to the Mike Porcaro Show on April 7 to discuss that day’s vetoes announced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and he also weighed in on whether he’d heard Johnston or other members say the same thing.
Pruitt said he “was not surprised” to see Johnston’s opinion.
“Oh yeah, I heard it from that member multiple times,” Pruitt said. “I heard at one point in time, in a meeting, that someone said ‘this is more money than these people have ever seen in their lives.’
Pruitt said he refrained from going public with that knowledge before because he didn’t think he’d be taken seriously.
“If it was just me saying it, people would say, ‘oh, he’s in the minority and just trying to cast aspersions,’” he said. “Now you’re hearing exactly what we were hearing.”
Sen. Shelley Hughes of Palmer backed up Pruitt in an April 9 call to Porcaro and agreed with him that Johnston's belief the PFD does more harm than good in the villages is not an uncommon one.
Without denying anything I reported she said after she called me on April 1, Johnston apologized on her official Facebook page for her comments. She wrote that the comments don’t reflect her “values and beliefs” and claimed she has a “deep love and respect for our Alaska Native community.”
“This is a learning process,” she posted. “In the future I will be educating myself and will do a better job communicating my respect for all Alaskans.”
Left without apologies from Johnston were the members of the congressional delegation that she threw under the bus to me by falsely claiming they shared her offensive views, or the state employees she stated don’t need an early PFD either.
House Majority spokesperson Austin Baird ignored my request for comment on April 9 — as did Senate Majority spokesperson Daniel McDonald — although Baird did choose to respond to KTUU and the Anchorage Daily News with a tepid statement from Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham.
“As the first House Speaker of Alaska Native heritage, someone who was born and raised in rural Alaska, I can assure you that Representative Johnston’s comments are not in line with our caucus values,” Edgmon said. “But she’s always been a strong supporter of issues important to rural Alaska and to our state’s first people. I don’t for a moment think her comments were meant to be harmful in the way they were portrayed to be.
“She has since acknowledged the mistake and issued a public apology, and she has reached out to leaders in the Alaska Native community to express her great remorse."
If you read that statement closely, you’ll find that Edgmon spent more words defending Johnston than he did defending the constituents she insulted or defending the positive impacts of the PFD in rural Alaska where the cost of living is astronomical. Other than mentioning his own heritage, Edgmon didn’t defend Alaska Natives at all.
Maybe that’s because, as he said, he thinks the way her comments “were portrayed to be” was worse than what she actually said.
Contrast that with fellow Democrat Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage, who offered no qualifications in his condemnation of Johnston’s comments posted to his official Facebook page.
“I have to disassociate myself from the comments made in the following editorial,” Tuck wrote in his post above the Journal link. “These comments are disparaging to many of our fellow Alaskans and do not reflect the views of the House Majority.
“We are all in this together, and I do not want this type of thinking to tear Alaskans apart. I am especially disappointed in the false characterization of how Permanent Fund Dividends are used by people in rural Alaska.
“Like many of you, I have lived in rural Alaska and have family and friends in rural Alaska, which means we know first-hand how vital the real money represented by the PFD is to the survival of so many Alaskans. This real money would be especially helpful during these tough economic times when so many businesses are closed, and hardworking Alaskans are unemployed.
“Many people, myself included, believe an early dividend would be very helpful.”
There is less distance between Anchorage and Dillingham than there is between Tuck’s statement and Edgmon’s.
Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin, who called me after I requested comment from the Senate Minority, expressed appreciation for Johnston’s support of other programs that benefit rural Alaska such as Power Cost Equalization but also noted that she was turning a “blind eye” toward the fact that a few people not spending their PFD wisely is a statewide problem, not one confined to villages.
He, like Tuck, also said he supports an early dividend and, unlike Edgmon, noted the benefits it provides to his constituents for things like getting their boats and nets ready for fishing season.
Lest anyone think this is a partisan issue for me, or that this is about the size of the dividend, I endorsed the 5 percent draw on the Permanent Fund and a $1,000 PFD back in June 2016.
I’ve been consistent on that position since, unlike some politicians such as Senate President Cathy Giessel, who voted for the $1,000 dividend under Senate Bill 128 in 2016. She then ran for reelection demagoging former Gov. Bill Walker for his veto setting the PFD at the amount she had just voted for and supporting then-Sen. Dunleavy’s plan to pay it back.
In fact, after Walker’s 2016 veto I did not blame him, but put the responsibility for the vetoes of the dividend and oil tax credits on members of both parties in both houses of the Legislature for failing to enact the draw and adjusting the PFD to reflect the reality of a $4 billion deficit.
I’ve spent hundreds of column inches criticizing Sen. Bill Wielechowski over his stance on oil taxes, but I also endorsed his lawsuit challenging Walker’s veto as a public service to resolve the separation of powers question.
Some may remember the column I wrote last summer blasting Dunleavy, former Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock and the House Minority for the chaos surrounding the state budget and the dividend. Babcock was replaced a week later by Ben Stevens.
This is not about partisanship or the PFD.
This is about public policy being set based on arrogance and the worst of racial stereotypes that appear to be commonly held by far too many members of the Legislature when reading the House Speaker’s qualified criticism of Johnston for sharing them.
This is about tens of thousands of Alaskans being forced to struggle with the state unemployment system, the Small Business Administration website and the loan process for the Paycheck Protection Program while waiting on relief checks from the IRS.
The Legislature had an opportunity to provide a measure of peace of mind to anxious Alaskans through an existing infrastructure that wouldn’t have required anyone to lift a finger beyond what nearly everyone had already done by the time the budget was passed on March 29, which was apply for the PFD.
But it turns out that the leadership is more intent on denying anything that may be favored by the governor, more committed to telling Alaskans in the villages and elsewhere that they know best, and more determined to establish who is the boss than to do what is right.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Thursday, April 09, 2020 - 11:12 am
Alaska’s largest oil producer announced this week that it will demobilize its drilling rig fleet at its North Slope fields to reduce the number of workers at risk of COVID-19.
“(ConocoPhillips) announced yesterday that due to the heightened COVID-19 risk to our North Slope workforce, we are taking action to significantly reduce the number of personnel on the Slope in a managed fashion,” said Natalie Lowman, a spokeswoman with the company.
“To do this, we are making the difficult decision to demobilize our rig fleet,” Lowman said in an email. “Given the high degree of uncertainty on how the situation plays out, we can’t say how long these measures will be in place.”
While the rigs will be placed in long-term storage, Lowman said, wells already in production will continue to produce oil.
ConocoPhillips and other oil companies in Alaska have taken unusual measures to prevent the virus from spreading at the oil fields, including extending multi-week shifts to reduce the number of replacement workers headed to the remote sites.
As of Wednesday afternoon, state health officials have confirmed the existence of only one case of COVID-19 on the North Slope. The individual works at Prudhoe Bay, run by BP.
Historically low demand during the coronavirus crisis has contributed to the plunge in oil prices, alongside an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The low oil prices have hit Alaska producers hard.
ConocoPhillips in March announced it would cut capital spending in Alaska by about $200 million, including by mothballing two rigs at the Alpine and Kuparuk fields.
The company informed workers and contractors on Tuesday that ConocoPhillips will now demobilize its entire rig fleet, said Lowman.
ConocoPhillips’ huge new drilling rig, nicknamed “The Beast," will not start drilling in April as originally planned, she said.
Lowman said she could not specify the number of rigs and workers that will be impacted. She also could not immediately provide details on impacts to production.
Each rig employs dozens of workers.
“Up to five rigs" will be impacted, said Ed King, a private economist in Alaska who tracks oil companies.
That does not include the “The Beast," which had not yet started drilling, he said.
The decision will at least defer some oil production for a period of time because there will be fewer wells producing oil, King said.
On the exploration side, it’s likely to delay the development of projects, King said.
The president of Doyon Drilling, which provides rigs and services to ConocoPhillips and other oil companies, said in a letter to employees on Tuesday that the decision will be “severely felt” by all Alaskans and Doyon Drilling employees.
“We understand that this volatile environment and (ConocoPhillips) directive is very concerning to our employees,” Ron Wilson wrote. “We are unable to predict how long it will take for the COVID-19 virus or the low oil prices to pass. In the meantime, we will demobilize our rigs in (a) safe and effective manner to ensure we are in position to resume drilling operations upon (ConocoPhillips') directive.”
Doyon spokeswoman Sarah Obed declined to comment.
BP, operator of the large Prudhoe Bay oil field, previously made a similar decision to lay down two drilling rigs to reduce the number of personnel working on the North Slope.
Posted Wednesday, April 08, 2020 - 8:48 am
With one unique North Slope oil discovery already in hand, a small group of explorers claims to have found another prospect on par with one of the state’s largest oil fields that is worth developing even at near rock-bottom prices.
Leaders of London-based Pantheon Resources said in an interview with the Journal that a modern evaluation of an old exploration well along with information gleaned from recent nearby drilling gives them the confidence to say they have a roughly 1.8 billion-barrel discovery south of Prudhoe Bay along the Dalton Highway and Trans-Alaska Pipeline System corridor.
Pantheon CEO Jay Cheatham said the prospect, dubbed Talitha, could ultimately produce approximately 500 million barrels of oil with peak production nearing 90,000 barrels per day, which would make it comparable to ConocoPhillips’ large Alpine field to the northwest.
If the resource estimates prove out, Talitha would be the latest in a series of big North Slope oil discoveries over roughly the past five years, which has led many within the industry to conclude there is a “renaissance” occurring in what was once the country’s premier oil basin.
However, while the economics of large North Slope prospects are routinely challenged by remote locations and a lack of infrastructure, Talitha and Pantheon’s nearby Greater Alkaid project avoid those multibillion-dollar hurdles, according to Cheatham.
ConocoPhillips and Oil Search, two of the companies advancing major new North Slope oil projects, recently announced a collective $270 million pullback of previously forecasted investments.
“We are so advantaged because of our location — being able to be right there along the Dalton Highway,” Cheatham said.
The company has estimated the Greater Alkaid prospect, which is believed to hold 76 million barrels of recoverable oil, could produce up to 30,000 barrels per day.
The Alkaid-1 well was drilled in 2015 by Anchorage-based Great Bear Petroleum, Pantheon’s predecessor firm on the project. It is just east of the Dalton and about 20 miles south of Prudhoe.
Pantheon bought Great Bear and its roughly 200,000 acres of North Slope leases in January 2019.
Results from the Pipeline State-1 exploration well drilled by Arco in 1988 also helped form the basis of geologic data that led Pantheon leaders to conclude they have a very large resource.
The Pipeline State well is also just east of the haul road and about 6 miles south of the Alkaid prospect. Pantheon Technical Director Rob Rosenthal, a founding member of Great Bear, said the well data from Greater Alkaid was combined with the old Pipeline State well test results and data from a modern 3D seismic shoot of the whole area to give a better picture of what lies beneath.
“It’s essentially in the same rocks, in the same stuff, in the same play,” as the Alkaid well, Rosenthal said of the Talitha prospect.
He added that even though the 10,000-foot vertical Pipeline State-1 well has a roughly 2,200-foot oil-bearing column over four reservoirs, with the technology and oil prices of the late 1980s it did not add up to a viable prospect at the time.
“There would have been no call back at $10 oil to go out and shoot 300-400 square miles of 3D (seismic), but today with the drilling technology, the completion technology, we can make this commercial,” Rosenthal said.
Pantheon is so far focusing on the shallowest reservoir.
Cheatham stressed the “dual advantage” that being adjacent to the haul road and TAPS provides the company. First, it allows Pantheon to avoid the massive up front costs of installing miles of remote gravel roads, drilling pads and pipelines and the corresponding multi-year environmental reviews that North Slope operators routinely face. It also makes it much easier for Pantheon to produce oil — and cash flow — early to help support full development of Talitha.
“It’s not like you’ve got to put in your whole facility. We can get (the wells) online virtually as we drill them,” Cheatham said.
Rosenthal added that the location also allows Pantheon to work year-round, while other companies are forced to limit appraisal drilling and early project development to the ice road season.
It all adds up to projects that are viable at oil prices in the $30 per barrel range, according to Cheatham.
The price for Alaska North Slope crude hovered near $30 per barrel in the second week of April as Saudis and Russian officials worked to end their production and price war that added downward pressure to oil markets already flooded with supply after the severe COVID-19-induced drop in demand started a month ago.
Full development is currently envisioned as about 170 wells split roughly evenly between water injectors and producers, a high-level plan similar to what was used to develop Alpine, he said.
Company leaders are hopeful development could begin in 2022 or 2023 if the global pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown do not persist for many months.
Cheatham and Rosenthal told the Journal in January that they planned to drill one or two more wells this year around Alkaid-1 and initiate a long-term production test, but that work is on hold at least until travel restrictions ease.
They acknowledged that Pantheon will need to find a partner to help finance large-scale development and that is challenged right now as well.
However, when Pantheon begins in earnest its search for financing for its projects, Rosenthal said he does not believe the company will be hampered by the decisions numerous investment banks have made in recent months to stop funding Arctic oil developments because Greater Alkaid and Talitha aren’t in sensitive or otherwise controversial areas.
“When they say ‘Arctic’ they mean offshore or ANWR or things like that,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a blanket ‘we’re not going to fund anything in Alaska,’ but it’s up to us to send out a positive message about what we’re doing.”
Cheatham said the project economics — and again, location along existing infrastructure — will be the ultimate deciding factor in whether or not Pantheon gets the money it needs for its work.
“We are economic really at prices that are so low that if any large projects get new funding we believe that ours would be right at the top of the list,” Cheatham said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, April 08, 2020 - 8:47 am
Dr. Mary Wegner has been hired to lead the Alaska College of Education’s two educational leadership programs. She will be responsible for the program that leads to a master of education degree, including satisfying the requirements for a Type B Certificate necessary to be a school principal, as well as the superintendent endorsement. Wegner is currently the superintendent of the Sitka School District. Wegner joins the UAS faculty beginning in July. A longtime leader for distance learning, she will be based in Juneau at the University of Alaska Southeast and have student supervision duties throughout Alaska. Wegner earned a Ph.D. in educational technology leadership from Pepperdine University in 2015. At UAS she earned her master of education degree in educational technology in 1995. She also holds a superintendent endorsement in educational leadership from UAS, and an administration endorsement in educational leadership from UA Anchorage.
Lisa Morris recently joined R&M Consultants Inc. as a graphic designer in the firm’s Marketing Group. Morris will be responsible for providing print and web/interactive graphic communications in support of R&M’s marketing, communications and project initiatives. Morris has 19 years of professional design experience in Alaska, with 15 of those years spent serving the A/E/C industry. She has provided graphic design services to engineering firms, commercial construction companies, project management firms and non-profits. Her skills include corporate and project branding, visual identities, print and digital collateral design, report design and layout, infographics, historical displays, copywriting and editing. She is also skilled in use of the Adobe Creative Suite. Since joining the firm, Morris has taken the lead on designing several marketing pieces for in-house and external resources. This includes proposal graphics, recruitment collateral, digital graphics, company icons and other company collateral pieces. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from the University of Oregon.
Jaylene Z. Wheeler was selected to fill a vacancy on the board of directors for the Sitnasuak Native Corp. at a special board meeting on March 19. Wheeler, 44, is a shareholder raised in Nome and currently resides in Anchorage. She earned a bachelor’s degree in rural development from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a master of public administration from the University of Alaska Southeast. She also has more than 15 years of management-related experience with Tribal health organizations and owns a small business, Wheeler Consulting. Wheeler will serve on the board for the remainder of a term through the 49th annual meeting.